Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
(Drag City; 2008)
By Peter Hepburn | 19 June 2008
After a sterling career and famous friends and the gooey, critical plaudits to which alt-country, semi-dorky troubadours aspire, Dave Berman got himself into a bit of a pickle with Tanglewood Numbers (2005). The album was great, but it was great in a way that had an ominous sense of finality about it. Berman had gone through a lot between Bright Flight (2001) and ’05—bouts of depression and substance abuse followed (a point not to be belabored) into a dissolution of the band and, it seemed, Berman’s creative motivation—and it left him the worse for wear, but Tanglewood, despite a few moments of levity, was pretty dark even by his standards. Closer “There is a Place” especially felt like a song that just left nothing more to be said; the book was closed, an entity finished, and Berman’s next role seemed a vague, distant notion.
It’s telling that Berman picks up where he left off on the opener of the Silver Jews’ sixth album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea: “What Is Not But Could Be If” makes clear that he’s aimed squarely at the future. My associate Traviss Cassidy recently wrote up the track and found the chorus to be a chilling vision of foretold destinies and fixed fate; to me it sounds more like a grumbled, grudging acceptance of hope. Berman may not sound too cheery, but rather than focus on “what was not but could have been” he’s going for “what is not but could be if.” It’s his way out, it’s his way forward, it’s maybe the most hopeful song the guy has ever written. And from there on it’s pretty much a Silver Jews record.
Without the sort of major life crisis themes that he was working through and hunkering over previously, Berman is able to get back into some more comfortable territory: quick, witty songs that often have a lot more going on than what ostensibly surfaces. “Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer” is a fun, rabid little track, while the epic, endlessly quotable “San Francisco, B.C.” fulfills the album story-song quotient single-handedly. I found “Candy Jail” grating at first, but the disconnect between verses and chorus and, more importantly, between message and music serves the song well. “Pain works on a sliding scale / So does pleasure in a candy jail,” Berman espouses as laconically as his husky voice allows, a tinkly piano sidling up against his strange, optimistic idea about relativity. Of course: “True love doesn’t come around any more than fate allows / On a Monday in Ft. Lauderdale,” he adds, imbibing the whole deal with an alcoholic’s warm sense of fate, but the see-sawing weight of life over, then under, death never tumbles backwards into bitterness.
The album’s strongest run is on the front half, starting with the country ballad “Suffering Jukebox,” which feels like it could have been a standout on Bright Flight, all Cassie sloppy ballad-ing somehow, inexplicably, but naturally, rising into something transcendent. Makes for good mixtape fodder for old men, too. The growled “My Pillow Is The Threshold” brings back some of the angst and worry of Tanglewood, but the simple sweetness of the final verse strikes a lighter note. The funny, sardonic “Strange Victory, Strange Defeat” is the real center of the album, with Berman lashing out at a music world that takes fashion over substance. So: duh, but he does that by singing about rebel squirrels and a world of “craven mediocrity,” which sums up a lot of what we love about the guy.
Berman’s never written a bad closer, and “We Could Be Looking For The Same Thing” may not be another “Pretty Eyes” or “The Wild Kindness,” but it’s a remarkably honest, sweet song from a guy not particularly known for either of those qualities. He and wife Cassie Berman harmonize beautifully on that shy, touching, “We could belong to each other / If you’re not seeing anyone.”
Lookout doesn’t have the feel of a major step forward for the Silver Jews: sonically, it falls pretty comfortably between Bright Flight and Tanglewood and doesn’t have the sort of big events that marked those two records. And in some ways that helps; after finally going out and taking the Jews on the road, Berman is just settling in and proving that he can be the center of a real honest-to-god rock band. This may be their simplest output, or at least their most unadorned, but never before have they sounded so comfortable, coy, jubilant, celebratory even. The disdain is mild, their criticisms half-joking, deprecation something to sleep off. For a group that has gone through so many line-up shifts and different incarnations heretofore, that’s not such a sad thing after all.